Many expect Rafael Nadal to successfully retain his Indian Wells title, but if he doesn’t, who will succeed him?
Nadal, the defending champion, is very much the man to beat at this year’s BNP Paribas Indian Wells Masters Series event that starts on Thursday (March 6th). Most fans still have fond memories of Rafa rubberstamping his comeback with an impressive victory at last year’s tournament – competing in his first hard court event of the year and trouncing Roger Federer, Thomas Berdych and Juan Martin Del Potro in successive matches to take the title.
Already this season, Nadal has claimed titles in Doha and the inaugural Rio Open, and also reached the final of the Australian Open. Although sometimes it might not seem like it, Nadal is both human and beatable, as we saw so dramatically in his four set loss in the Melbourne final to Stanislas Wawrinka, where a combination of a back ailment plus inspired play from Wawrinka was his undoing.
While fans are no doubt unanimous in wishing that the number-one star in tennis stays fit and healthy throughout 2014, he will nevertheless sustain losses during the course of the year. Even the very best have off-days, and it’s not inconceivable to see Nadal losing his BNP Paribas title, but if that scenario happens and Nadal has an off-day, which players would be best able to capitalize?
Five Other Players That Can Win In Indian Wells:
(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
1. Novak Djokovic
No great surprises here; when the Djoker is on top of his game, more often than not he has the beating of Nadal. Problem is - Djokovic has looked less than impressive in important matches this season, losing to Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in January, and last week losing in the semifinals of the Dubai Open to a resurgent Roger Federer.
He finished last year with two-straight victories over Nadal, and although he trails the Spaniard 22-17 overall, since 2011 when the Serb switched to a gluten-free diet that subsequently sent his fitness and stamina levels skyrocketing, their head-to-head is 10-6 in Djokovic’s favor.
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2. Stanislas Wawrinka
Stan the Man is the most improved player on the ATP tour over the past 12 months, a fact exemplified by his victories over Djokovic and Nadal at the Australian Open. Stan was 15-2 against the Djoker without a win since 2006, yet won in five sets, while against Nadal he was zero-for-12 and had never won a single set, yet dominated the Spaniard in the opening set when he looked to be moving as well as ever.
As we now know, Nadal was carrying an injury to his back that he sustained during his warm-up for the final, and as the match progressed the injury got worse. Nevertheless in the first and fourth sets when both men looked sharp, Wawrinka was the governor, and it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens the next time both men meet on court.
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3. Grigor Dimitrov
When Rafael Nadal defeated Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open by a score line of 3-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-2, the 22-year-old Bulgarian was inconsolable because he knew that had he played a few points harder he may well have won the match. For so long the man dubbed “Baby Fed” because of the similarities with his game and the legendary Roger Federer, Dimitrov became his own man in that match, displaying the total package of speed, power, touch and talent, plus a much hungrier side of himself that fans were less familiar with.
He subsequently lost to Ernests Gulbis in the last-16 of Rotterdam, but last week claimed his second career ATP title when he won the Mexican Open in Acapulco, gaining revenge over Gulbis in the quarterfinals, defeating Andy Murray in the semis and then surviving a tremendous effort from South African giant Kevin Anderson to win the final.
The victory lifts Dimitrov to a career-high world no.16, but have no doubt - this young man won’t rest until he gets to the very top of the game.
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4. Roger Federer
The 32-year old 17-time Grand Slam winner – but Rafa’s “whipping boy” over the years - could be the man to end the Spaniards reign at Indian Wells.
Why? Because right now, Federer is arguably playing the best tennis of anyone in the game.
Two things count against Federer every times he plays Nadal:
1. His self-belief - Roger simply does not believe he can beat Rafa anymore, and while in most of their matches he has his little purple-patch, as soon as the Spaniard imposes his will once more, so Federer’s game goes out of the window.
2. Federer has never learned to cope with Nadal’s vicious high-kicking topspin forehand to his backhand. In recent matches between the two, Nadal’s confidence has become so high that he thinks nothing of pummeling the ball relentlessly to the Federer-forehand, but he always knows that if the Swiss-maestro starts to get too “into” the match, Nadal can revert back to his favored plan of belting everything to poor-old Roger’s backhand.
The times when Federer has gotten the better of Nadal is when he has been able to run around his backhand and dominate the match with his powerful forehand. As his recent title winning run in Dubai proved, Federer is once again moving superbly, with footwork as quick and nimble as that of a man 10 years younger.
If Federer can move like that on the lightning fast courts of Indian Wells and dominate with his forehand, plus implement his newfound volleying skills courtesy of master-tactician Stefan Edberg, he has a shot of beating Nadal for the first time since 2012.
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5. Ernests Gulbis
Ya gotta love Ernests Gulbis – the billionaire’s son from Latvia with the couldn’t-give-a-f**k attitude, except when it comes to his tennis career, of which he is deadly serious.
Fine player though he is, it’s doubtful that Gulbis can get to the very top, but he is on an upward curve career wise, and this year alone has beaten Grigor Dimitrov, Juan Martin Del Potro, Richard Gasquet and Tsonga, and also gave a good account of himself against Nadal in Doha, going down 7-5 6-4.
If Gulbis were to beat Nadal in Indian Wells, it would surely be standing-room-only in the post-match press conference;
After converting his seventh match point to pull off a shock win over then-world no.1 Federer at the Italian Open, when asked about how it felt to beat the great man at the post-match presser, Gulbis said: "I s**t my pants a little bit there...excuse my language!"